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Diana Gabaldon – Outlander

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Make certain the period you are researching was peaceful…

Publisher: Arrow (Random House)
Pages: 851
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75137-1
First Published: 1st June 1991
Date Reviewed: 8th January 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Reunited after WWII, Claire and Frank travel from Oxfordshire to the Scottish Highlands. It’s part second honeymoon, part research trip to find out more about Frank’s six-times great-grandfather who was a British officer for the army in the 1740s. Early one morning, the couple visit an ancient stone circle to witness a pagan ritual and it’s an interesting enough event, but when Claire decides to spend more time at the circle and touches the centre stone, she is whisked inside it; upon waking she is once more in the stone circle but there’s a battle going on outside between a band of kilted men and a small English patrol of Red Coats.

Outlander is an epic historical fantasy romance1 that takes a 1940s nurse back in time to the period her husband is researching. Creating for Claire a new life, including a second marriage, and written from her perspective, it stays exclusively in the 1740s.

The first in what is currently a series of eight books with another in the works, Outlander is a lengthy work, and mostly focused on the relationship Claire has with Highlander Jamie. This is to say that while it is a time travel and includes a lot of historical information, the romantic element is paramount and thus the aspect of fantasy far less used.

The history here is very good; whilst not always completely accurate, and not always developed where you might expect it to have been, Gabaldon’s research is evident. Often the reason any one section is slow – there are a fair few of these sections in the first half of the book – is due to the author’s focus on either information or the wish to detail the day-to-day of Claire’s new life as she settles in (or, rather, settles in whilst still planning to escape back to the stones). There is little info-dumping in the book – Gabaldon includes information well – and apart from the few issues with language the history in the book is enjoyable.

In terms of the language it’s 50/50 between highly believable conversation (word choice and phrasing for the time periods) and not so well written in terms of grammar and general phrasing. There are some sentences that use modern phrasing from across the pond that likely skipped through unnoticed, but overall Claire’s descriptions read well. There are a few Gaelic words and Scots words included, the former not necessarily meant to be understood, the latter easy enough to pick up in a short amount of time.

Looking at descriptions, it could well be said that the book would have been better had it been written in the third person. Claire isn’t particularly compelling – in fact she’s often downright irritating – and because Gabaldon sticks to her perspective, lots of elements you might have expected to be included are very short on the ground. Claire doesn’t often compare her new life to her old one or find any difficulties with it; apart from the times when she decides she wants to escape what is otherwise being developed by the author as a comfortable, romantic, new life, and apart from the handful of times when she knows the medical treatment she is giving to a patient won’t actually help, she doesn’t she think of Frank, the 1940s, or modernity anywhere near what you would expect.

Due to all this, you never once hear about how Frank is doing back in the 1940s – once Claire time travels, he drops out of the story, to be referred to only in thought. This means that the development of Claire’s relationship with Jamie is a lot easier. Another literary device comes in the form of Jamie’s lack of sexual experience, which neatly side-steps the requirement to discuss STIs, which would surely have otherwise entered Claire’s medical mind.

Romance, but mainly the sexual aspect, is a huge part of the book and generally included ‘just because’ rather than to advance the story. The book is essentially an erotic romance, extremely explicit in places, rarely leaving anything to the imagination. As the book continues, it goes further than consensual sex, with scenes of dubious consent, and graphic, violent, rape (the non-sexual violence is also extreme, and there comes a point near the end when it could be called intolerable2 (and means that something minor in terms of story but crucial to the historical context is left out3).

For this then, then, it is difficult to say that Outlander is a general romance, and it’s not only the concentration on lust at the expense of love but the fact of perspective to blame here. Is there romance in the book? Yes, and a fair amount, but given Claire’s indecision, the romance is mostly in Jamie’s court where development and content is concerned. With no time for Jamie’s perspective, this all has to be filtered through dialogue. (Jamie’s perspective, and more historical context, would have helped explain the clash of cultures that forms one of the common criticisms of the book, which cites a man’s punishment of his wife.) The chemistry between the characters is evident, but not portrayed as well as it could have been, especially as Jamie has no real competition due to Frank’s exit stage right.

Outlander definitely has its good – excellent, in fact – moments, and there are patches of terrific humour to be found as well as a steady sense of duty, family, and kin, but it does spend a lot of time on moments that do not move the narrative forward and on things that don’t inform the premise of the story (there are well over 40 sex scenes in the book, both fully consensual and not) and would have been better edited down by a few hundred pages; suffice to say that when Gabaldon returns from the bedroom to the narrative, the effect on proceedings is immediate, and the story continues well. And the positives do out-way the negatives.

Footnotes

1 The author has noted both that as she was writing the book for herself she didn’t limit what she included (Gabaldon, n.d) and that the book has been shelved in shops under a vast variety of genres (Gabaldon, 2016).
2 On page 735 of the novel, Gabaldon does say the following, through Claire, which goes a fair way towards explaining the reason for the inclusion:

One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling and voilà! a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh.

3 Due to the focus on violence, Christmas comes and goes, indeed the days are spent at a Catholic monastery, with absolutely no mention of it by anyone.

Online References

Gabaldon, Diana (n.d.) The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019
Gabaldon, Diana (2016) Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019

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Ella Drake – Desert Blade

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Love and survival in an apocalyptic world.

Publisher: Carina Press (Harlequin)
Pages: 71
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4268-9367-4
First Published: 23rd April 2012
Date Reviewed: 5th June 2012
Rating: 3.5/5

Derek and Lidia met when Lidia was the doctor in charge of rehabilitating him after he lost his arm. The riots and outright violence that had filled the streets of America threatened everyone’s lives, and whilst the two appeared to strike a rapport, it couldn’t last for long. 10 years later and Lidia still wonders what happened to Derek. When he turns up at her new community’s secured dwelling, looking for a doctor for a young friend, the feelings that had had little time to develop come racing back.

As this is a very short book, giving a basic plot summary without including any “spoiler” information is pretty impossible. However considering that the book’s strength lies in its setting and that the book is fairly predictable in an acceptable way, I do not see summarising it as a bad thing.

Drake once again provides us with an example of how creative and interesting she is when it comes to constructing worlds and elaborating on them. We’ve had sci-fi fairytales, romance in space with cowboys, and now we have an empty apocalyptic world. But this isn’t the apocalyptic world of the Young Adult genre, chilling and tyrannical, no, this is your bona fide obliteration, a world where nature has succumbed to the destructive forces of man and given in. Technology still exists but infrequently, and the world is notable for its desert.

The only issue with this is that there’s undoubtedly much to explore and a lot to learn – whilst the reader does learn a lot, the shortness of the book means that a good deal is left unsaid. Indeed the story itself is so short that it feels less of a novella and more the sort of piece that would fit into a collection. Because of the quick pace and few details you wonder if it would have worked better had it been in a compilation.

However that’s not to say that the book is bad, because as inferred, a book with such world building could not be so. And there is a lot to like about Desert Blade. One such example is the beginning, where everything feels rushed and you wonder if this will be the pace throughout. Once you get to the “10 years later” you realise just how appropriate such a fast pace was, not only because it was provided as background context, but because such a format is used for flashbacks in films – a quick glimpse of something, explosive in its revelations, before the story starts for real. You realise that the entire section was in fact one scene.

Something that was pointed out in reviews of Jaq’s Harp, was the inappropriate nature of a couple casually discussing whether they should revive their sexual relationship – all the while being chased by the enemy. Drake clearly took this criticism to heart, however she wove the criticism around her own preferences to good effect. In Desert Blade there may be enemies chasing the couple, but they will find a safe place before discussing their relationship. That Drake took the criticism of her readers and used it to improve an idea that she liked is to be admired and respected. In this one small element of her writing she has improved as a writer ten-fold, and shown that her readers important.

Desert Blade has a good concept behind it, a fascinating world that begs to be portrayed on the big screen, and an interesting mix of traditional and modern values. It may even have a hint of present media culture in the form of an element not unlike X-Men. The sole aspect that holds it back is its length. While we may know enough to understand the attraction between the characters, especially physically, we do not get to spend enough time with them to truly appreciate their positive roles in the community, and whilst another might say that that’s okay given the romantic focus, the fact that Drake included enough about the context to intrigue us, makes it an issue. The concept of lost and found is completed, but it could have been developed a lot more. Whilst the characters are the focus, it can be easy to instead get lost in the setting.

Something that has so far been left out of this review is the reasoning for this book being an erotic rather than fade-to-black romance. There are a couple of scenes, one in particular, with explicit language and no-holds-barred descriptions. However unlike Drake’s previous books, they are not as prevalent and indeed one of them is woven around the issue of contraception, providing a lesson at the same time. That said, Derek is rather open about his love of women in a way that may prove uncomfortable with some readers, especially when his need to protect oversteps the mark.

Desert Blade is an interesting story combined with a compelling sorry world. Appropriate as an introduction to Drake’s work, it demonstrates the author’s strengths well. It perhaps ought to have been longer but is good on its own merit – and it does succeed in continuing the tradition of making you look forward to whatever world Drake has in mind next.

I received this book for review from Carina Press.

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Jodie Griffin – Forbidden Fantasies

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Sprucing something old with something new.

Publisher: Carina Press (Harlequin)
Pages: 73
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4268-9333-9
First Published: 5th March 2012
Date Reviewed: 29th March 2012
Rating: 4/5

Jess and Alex’s marriage is stable, but after 15 years and two children, their life is set in its ways. Then Jess discovers erotica, and the stories appeal to her. But telling Alex is something else – would he be okay with it all?

As the name suggests, Forbidden Fantasies is a bit of an explicit book dealing with a faithful long-term couple and their first foray into kinky sex – the explicitness regarding word choice rather than any situation. As far as the story goes the scenes are quite mild, and it is only the people the couple encounter, and the described scenes from Jess’s books, that take it any further. In this way it is a very good candidate for anyone looking to try something slightly outside the “norm”, while the faithful loving couple make it a good choice for anyone who might worry about casualness.

And while the scenes are explicit, and start from the word go, they are not uncomfortable. Indeed the inclusion of “forbidden” has a lot more to do with Jess’s upbringing than any sort of sexual urge. It is Jess’s protected childhood and her parent’s views that ultimately cause her to believe that what she wants is wrong, and it’s Alex’s job to convince her that he is okay with what she wants. A lot of scenes look back at how Alex and Jess got through her initial issues with sex itself.

Jess and Alex are struggling with communication and ideals, and while a vast amount of time is given to sexual scenes, there is a lot to be said for the emotion that Griffin stirs up. In fact the scenes full of angst are perhaps the best of all, and Griffin has written them beautifully. They are what sets the book firmly in the realm of romance and because of the nature of the characters crafted, Griffin succeeds in being very true to life.

Because what Griffin examines, as the background to the whole idea of Forbidden Fantasies, is this communication. She demonstrates how things can become out of control if communication is halted, how things can go wrong when a person can only assume from extracts of information, how the smallest of issues can become major problems. Of course because the issue is, at least for the characters, minor, it’s going to be resolved quickly, thus enabling Griffin to get back to the erotic side of things, but everything is given the appropriate amount of time.

Due to the development of the characters, the sexual scenes at the beginning of the book are more what one would term “vanilla”, slowly increasing to soft bondage by the end. Apart from those mentioned there are also brief looks at voyeurism and ménages where the couple are outsiders pondering on these new experiences.

Forbidden Fantasies may be too much of an introduction for seasoned erotic romance readers, but for the person looking to explore the erotic romance genre as a whole, it is a good way of deciding whether or not you might like to take things further. And as far as one can ascertain from the couple, Jess and Alex certainly hope you do.

I received this book for review from Carina Press.

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Ella Drake – Jaq’s Harp

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Magic beans aren’t just for kids.

Publisher: Carina Press
Pages: 56
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-426-89123-6
First Published: 21st February 2011
Date Reviewed: 3rd March 2011
Rating: 3.5/5

Jaq’s sister is dying of a disease that only those who live and work in the sky can cure. Knowing that, as an agent of a covert corporation, she can secret herself up to the floating islands courtesy of her colleague’s beanstalk, Jaq prepares to find the antidote. She may also discover her ex-fiancée in the process.

The set-up for Jaq’s Harp is very good, a blend of science fiction and fairytale, and as before for Silver Bound, Drake successfully creates a world that is fascinating to read about. You are given all the details necessary at any given time to imagine the scene.

The characters are interesting and because of the short page count you get to see how they handle a number of different emotions one after another. Jaq is your kick-ass chick and although you know how Jaq’s mind reels at the sight of her boyfriend, it doesn’t stop her later saving the day. The background story of the characters is given enough time so that you understand their love. I think I would’ve liked to see Jaq take more of a role in the retrieval of the antidote but it didn’t hinder the story.

The inclusion of the fairytale works very well, it’s changed enough to be almost Drake’s own work in its entirety. Having the islanders called Giant Corps is surprisingly original because at times it’s easy to forget the children’s story and so the term nudges your memory.

Once again I find myself saying that I would love to read a story that explores Drake’s world further. The book is apt for the time Jaq’s mission would have taken, it’s only a short mission after all, but it would be great to know that you have more space to really enjoy being in the world created.

The only issue I had was with the romance, not because it’s included, but because its initial placement puts a damper on the pacing. The story begins by throwing you into the situation, racing along as Jaq makes her way towards the enemy and then stops suddenly. It stops so that the heroine can meet her hero, which is fine, but when they start considering whether or not to have sex when they should actually be getting the hell out of there it becomes unrealistic, obvious fantasy genre aside. Romance was to be expected with this book but as Drake shows with a well-timed sex scene at the end, there are better places for it.

To the sex scenes themselves, they are hot. The characters are in love, the details are bold and obvious, the latter more so perhaps than in Silver Bound. The last sex scene ends on a written triumph.

If there’s one single thing I’d like to point out amongst everything else, it’s the inability of the sky-dwellers to look down and the rarity of an earth-dweller looking up. The whole social issue is summed up in that one factor.

If the beanstalk was exciting when conquered once, Jaq’s Harp illustrates that it can be just as exciting when conquered twice.

I received this book for review from Carina Press.

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Ella Drake – Silver Bound

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Sometimes you might get what you always wanted, but you’ll have to fight for it first.

Publisher: Carina Press (Harlequin)
Pages: 191
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-426890-79-6 (only avaliable as an ebook)
First Published: 22nd November 2010
Date Reviewed: 20th February 2011
Rating: 3.5/5

When Jewel attempts to run away from her evil husband, taking their son with her, she’s caught and her memories are wiped. Prepared to become a sexual slave, no one thought that it would be her much-loved ex-boyfriend who would come to claim her as his, the motive being to save her.

This was pushing the boat for me. Even though I didn’t think my venture into Mills & Boon too shabby an experience, it hadn’t been what I thought it would be. I was therefore still lacking in what I’d set out to gain – experience in a genre far removed from what I usually read. The summary of Drake’s Silver Bound found it’s way to me through one of the statuses of the author’s Twitter account, and I knew without a doubt that this was it.

Silver Bound deals with a deprived subject but although Drake uses it for erotic purposes she doesn’t let the storyline sink to such levels as you may imagine. Indeed the space, western, and escape elements are just as important, and it’s obvious that time has been spent just as much on them as the romance.

What Drake does is present the situation but makes it so that the man, Guy, who claims the slave, Jewel, is a lover from her past who regrets their parting and is thus wanting to save her from her predicament. There is actually less sex than you might think because the love Guy has for Jewel does not permit him to use her to his advantage. Guy makes for a very worthy hero.

All that said I can’t really shy away from describing the sex. It’s hot, it’s in a variety of flavours, and it goes back and forth in control depending on Jewel’s recovery of memories at any given time.

Another point of interest is the growth of Jewel, the enslaved woman. Before her enslavement, upon which her memories are wiped, she is a sassy and confident woman despite her horrible situation. After her enslavement, especially when she meets Guy, she begins to regain them so that the story doesn’t remain as much about Guy’s feelings and it becomes a story of two equals. That’s not to say that Jewel’s thoughts are given no time, indeed they are included in all sections of the story.

I couldn’t write about this book and not talk about the mix of living in space and the realm of the cowboy. Silver Bound isn’t so much futuristic as it is fantasy, the people inhabit and use space stations, journey through the universe in “hoppers” and have futuristic technology – but they appear to have lived on their different planets for ever. The western aspect blends into this flawlessly, as Drake explains how the ranchers use the older ways of living – the cowboy ways – to keep their patch of land fresh. Guy can use a technologically advanced weapon, but he’ll just as often bring out the lasso.

The writing is good but there is a sense of the short story in that many times the scene switches suddenly, sometimes it’s very confusing what is happening. The book could have done with a little more development to keep the transitions between sections of the plot smooth.

I can’t say that my comfort zone in romance overall has changed, even if after the third time my boyfriend asked me what I was reading on my phone and the answer came back, sensationalised for maximum effect, “a dirty erotic novel”, he no longer blinked an eye lid, quashed further by my reminder that men have had access to porn for centuries – but having read Silver Bound I feel less daunted by the genre and see that if you choose wisely you don’t have to land yourself with something that is stereotypical or badly written.

Drake drops an original mix into the pot and shows that a combination of genres at opposite ends of the scale can be blended to good effect, even when the least of details in the blend is examined. The universe created could support a vast number of interesting stories of many types – and as a small slice from this massive universe, Silver Bound does not disappoint.

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